Shrink the kids: can weight be talked away?

Research indicates that family therapy can help obese children from becoming obese teenagers. A study found that therapy combined with a diet and exercise program were more effective in helping overweight children than behavioral treatment alone.


Somewhere between the basement and the attic, you already have the device that may prevent you plump preteen from becoming an obese adolescent. It’s called the rest of the family.

Most overweight kids balloon into their teens. But a new Swedish study showed that when parents and siblings got involved, overweight kids didn’t gain as much weight. Researchers uncovered this when they gave 19 obese 10-year-olds exercise instructions and a low-calories diet strategy. A group of 20 others got that recipe plus six sessions (over 18 months) of family therapy–talk sessions with the whole family and a family therapist that help everyone sort out what’s working (or not) in how the family functions. For instance, family members might learn how to problem solve, nurture, set limits with one another and talk about feelings. By getting the family to work better together, the child receives the nurturing needed to prevent emotional overeating and the limits required to develop a healthy lifestyle.


By the time the obese kids reached age 14, those whose clans helped out stopped the bulge, while everyone else gained weight (Pediatrics, May 1993). Based on this study, if an average, overweight 10-year-old (Starting at 100 pounds) had family therapy in conjunction with behavioral treatment, he might reach his teens weighing 138 pounds. On diet and exercise alone, he might be closer to 145, but without anything, his weight could Inflate to 150.

American researchers say this study is the first published evidence to confirm what they’ve suspected all along. “We’ve seen for some time that it’s only when you have an impact on the family functioning that weight loss persists in the child for the long terms,” says Laurel Mellin, R.D., director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Obesity at the University of California, San Francisco. That’s because family therapy doesn’t just treat the pounds once they’re on, she says. It also helps pull the plug on what’s luring the child’s hand to the cookie jar in the first place. That’s why many child-obesity programs conducted by hospitals already weave together lifestyle and family therapy in caring for obese children.

The bonus for the household with a chunky child is that most families end up with more than a slim teen, says Mellin. “The whole family gets an opportunity to become closer. And parents find they feel better about their parenting.” Check with your family doctor or call the SHAPE-DOWN Program Hotline at (415) 453-8886 for information on how to find a program with a family therapist in your area.